Jonty Pearce helps Penguin Cruising Club members to brush up on their skippering skills ahead of an Easter charter to Scotland
After a long winter with no sailing many skippers feel their skills might have become a little corroded.
With our club’s customary Easter Skye charter fast approaching, the Penguin Cruising Club committee agreed that it would be sensible to send some of our skippers and mates out to re-acclimatize them to life afloat.
I duly offered my Southerly 105 ketch Aurial as a training platform, and four of us met up on a bright but cold March weekend at Neyland Yacht Haven, Pembrokeshire.
By the time we had all got on board dusk had fallen, supper had beckoned, and the arrival of club members and local sailing friends Norry and Hutch dashed any thought of sailing out of a warm marina berth onto a cold, dark anchorage; the conversation duly flowed as freely as the whisky.
Perfect conditions awaited us next morning; I made sure we did things properly with a comprehensive briefing before we embarked on a less detailed passage plan.
With the wind a steady Force 4 from the north and the tide ebbing but allowing sufficient depth to emerge over Neyland’s Upper Basin cill, the initial plan was simply to slip our lines, leave the marina’s shelter, and sail down haven past the oil terminals to a handy anchorage under Little Castle Head to have brunch.
The breeze had a cool touch to it, and we were quite happy to go below for a hot drink, a bite to eat, and a planning session.
Knowing the area well, I did a few quick calculations ‘on the back of a postage stamp’ before encouraging my fellow skippers to establish whether a passage to Solva, a pretty drying haven on the north coast of St Bride’s Bay, was feasible.
Factors to consider included wind direction, tidal flow along Broad Sound (the stretch of water leading from St Ann’s Head to Skomer Island), and the state of the tidal gate of Jack Sound that separates St Bride’s Bay from the Bristol Channel.
Once in St Bride’s Bay, a height of tide of 3m would be necessary to reach Solva’s visitor moorings.
After negotiating Jack Sound’s reefs and rocks, the 8-mile approach to Solva would be directly upwind – not Aurial’s swiftest point of sail.
The feasibility study was confirmed as the day’s passage plan – and I had already established the that next day’s reverse timings worked – so we weighed anchor and ran down to St Ann’s Head before tightening up onto a reach on the westward turn to Skomer.
Nigel was elected to act as pilot through Jack Sound; with the wind on the nose for the transit from the Blackstones to Tusker Rock we fired up the engine as the tide gently helped us through, even though calculated timings suggested slack water.
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This was a good learning point; I find that tidal flow predictions from online apps, chartplotters, and tidal stream atlases are rarely accurate enough to take into account local variations caused by atmospheric pressure and wind direction.
In Jack Sound slack water can often be shifted by up to 30 minutes, though the initial flow or ebb is insufficient to form a barrier to passage, especially at neaps.
Our visit was just after springs with a tidal range of 7m; rather more than my colleagues were used to as they pondered not only the vast bodies of water sloshing to and fro, but also the need to take such a range into account when anchoring and its influence on safe chain rode length.
With Jack Sound’s teeth unveiled by the low spring tide we were reassured by the chartplotter’s little boat icon swimming serenely along the centre of deep-water channel until we bore away onto a close reach to start tacking up to Solva.
Filling in the time while we beat upwind by reminding my companions of the benefits of tacking to gain from wind shifts and the principles of lee-bowing the tide did not stop us feeling the cold; with the tide at a sufficient height but the light beginning to fail we elected to motor the last half mile to the shelter of Solva’s entrance.
Mark helmed us in, and we soon picked up a visitor mooring, decoding its attached lines into a pair of bow strops and a single stern one.
Below, the heater soon had us in shirtsleeves, and we all slept well after supper. Aurial dried out gently during the night and refloated for the morning while I slept soundly through.
After a relaxed breakfast we slipped our lines. With the wind pressing from astern and the mooring buoy bobbing inconveniently amidships to leeward we carefully drifted away, though I still worried our precautions were insufficient to prevent the mooring buoy catching up on our propeller.
It didn’t, and none of us could think of a guaranteed way to leave, but it was another good discussion point as Alan motored us out between the rocks.
The sun was shining as the wind wafted us back across St Bride’s Bay; it was a delight to be sailing and running before a steady warm breeze.
We traversed Jack Sound smoothly under full sail before playing with the mizzen staysail on a broad reach down Broad Sound.
We struck the staysail and hardened up onto a fine reach to enter the Milford Haven Waterway before easing away eastwards at Thorn Island.
The tide was gently against us as we watched the oil gantries and sundry tankers pass, until the wind failed and we motored the last part back to Neyland.
We did not do much formal training; initial plans of pontoon bashing, man overboard drill, and reefing were supplanted by the joy of sailing, though we were able to practice anchoring, picking up moorings, and coming onto a berth.
As a rust removal exercise it was a resounding success; I’m I will be asked for a repeat programme in 2020!